Working On the Go, Play to Your Strengths

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For too many of us, travel time is downtime. All those hours lost to taxi stands, boarding queues, and the occasional bout of sheer inter-time-zone exhaustion really add up over the course of a week. But time on the road presents some great opportunities, too.

Time to Focus

When I'm at the office, I often find myself grumbling under my breath about the myriad interruptions--from meetings to phone calls to "hey-got-a-minute" barge-ins--that break my concentration and keep me from making progress on the stuff that's supposed to fulfill my primary job description. As a manager, I can't reasonably turn away all those interactions; they're an important part of my work. But when I'm on the road, I suddenly have an excuse (it's not even a choice, really) to be out of contact and inaccessible to all those daily distractors.

Artwork: Chip Taylor
It's easy to hate on commuter airlines that refuse to offer in-flight Wi-Fi (I'm looking at you, Southwest), but those periods of offline time can be an opportunity if you prepare for them in advance and keep the right tools at hand.

Offline Mode

I've long extolled the virtues of cloud computing, but I've also suffered my share of horrendous productivity drops in the absence of a stable Internet connection. So although I love my Gmail, Google Apps, and Remember the Milk online services for day-to-day work when I'm consistently connected, I still value good offline apps for travel days.

People like to complain about Microsoft Outlook, but as a full-featured productivity app, it's hard to beat. And many of the best Web-based productivity services (like RTM and Evernote) offer good plug-ins for it. I also use Google Gears to keep my most essential online tools synced and accessible when I'm away from a connection. Google has abandoned Gears and is no longer developing it, but in most browsers it still works pretty well. I can only hope Google rolls out its HTML5 offline-caching tool soon.

Whatever toolset you use, just make sure you have the essentials--your to-do list, e-mail, and a recently synced documents folder such as Dropbox--accessible when the Internet falls away beneath your feet. Otherwise, you'll be left reading the SkyMall catalog or playing Solitaire for most of the flight.

Mobile E-mail

When I'm on the road, I spend much of my day standing in lines, sitting in cabs, and lounging around lobbies. These are awkward moments, because I often can't really justify booting up the laptop to get to my core apps, so instead I find myself thumbing through email on my phone. Of course, this can be a problem in its own right.

Casually perusing mobile e-mail can be a great way to take advantage of otherwise idle time, so long as you don't let it derail your overall system for managing the bulk of your email inbox.

I generally try to touch each incoming message only once, if I can help it. So when I peruse email on my phone, I steer clear of messages that look like they might require some kind of protracted response--unless, of course, it's urgent.

Instead of bogging myself down in tapping out replies, I first skim the inbox in search of things I can just delete. Once I've whittled down the list a little, I seek out quick status updates that I can immediately archive. After that, depending on how much time I've got, I'll look for things I can handle with only a few words of response. I don't need the frustration of getting halfway through tapping out an incoherent reply to a colleague only to have to stop and hand my ticket to a TSA agent and then come back to the email later with only a vague memory of what I'd intended to say. It's far better, and more productive I think, to wait until I'm in a position to respond appropriately and give the message my full attention.

Mobile Broadband

Unless your laptop has a built-in mobile broadband card or you carry a USB dongle, you'll probably spend much of your travel time searching for public Wi-Fi. While 3G and 4G data plans can seem pricey on face value, the almost-always-available connection is well forth $80 a month for a frequent traveler. For occasional travelers, however, it can be a tough call.

I've resisted buying into a dedicated data plan for years, but finally broke down and settled for a reasonable compromise: a 3G hotspot plan. For $25 a month, I can use my phone as a 3G hotspot when I need it (which turns out to be about three times a month, on average). In those rare moments when I use the service, it's well worth the minor expense to ensure that I can stay in touch and productive.

Expense Receipts

If you're prepared for the road with good offline tools that sync files from your main hard drive and a reliable strategy for connecting when you need to, you should have very little actual downtime as you flit from place to place. But should you find yourself with a few minutes to spare, use it to get on top of one of the most common mobile productivity breakdowns: receipts.

I can't tell you how many road warriors I know who are utterly inept at receipt management. I'm not being mean here; it's just a factual observation that they're not on top of it. To test whether you fall into this category, look into your travel bag halfway through a trip and see how quickly you can account for the receipts you've accumulated. If you're like most people, you'll be lucky to find all your receipts in one place. A lot of folks will find a crumpled wad of indistinguishable paper strips.

I break receipt management down into two processes. First, I capture the actual paper in a single location--a clear plastic snap-shut envelope that I keep in the outer pocket of my laptop bag. I can grab it in less than a second without looking, and every single latte receipt goes straight in the moment after it hits my hand. Second, I spend a few minutes at the end of each day capturing them digitally with a mobile app called Expensify, which lets you take a picture of the receipt and automatically sync it to the cloud. Now I not only know where all my physical receipts are; I also have backup copies. (By the way, if you use Evernote, that works pretty well here too. It just won't help you compile an expense report later on unless you use a third-party plug-in.)

If your accounting department is even remotely hip, they'll let you submit the expense reports that Expensify creates. If not, you'll have to fill out some kludgy Excel spreadsheet or worse. But in either case, you'll be glad you spent all of about 20 collective minutes of your travel time accounting for your receipts in advance. So instead of putting off wading through the jumble of garbage in your bag, you can file your expense report quickly when you get back from your trip.

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